John Murray, £7.99, 277pp. £7.59 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
What I Did, By Christopher Wakling
Friday 17 February 2012
From Molesworth to Adrian Mole, English literature is crammed with memorable schoolboy narrators. In his fifth novel, Christopher Wakling takes us back even further, acting as ventriloquist to the kindergarten classes with a horribly plausible journey into the mind of a six-year-old boy. Billy Wright, the book's pint-sized narrator, isn't on the special needs spectrum, nor is he intentionally difficult. It's just the "electricity" he feels "fizzing" in his arms and legs that compels him to tip back on chairs and slam into walls. One weekday morning, this same energy causes him to slip out from under his father's grasp and make a dash across a busy main road. Billy's father, already irritated after an incident in a coffee shop, pulls down his son's trousers and smacks him across the buttocks "very, very, very hard". As in Christos Tsiolkas's novel, The Slap, the ensuing drama is less about politically incorrect parenting than how a family copes with the fall-out of a very public violation.
Billy's slap is witnessed by a concerned bystander who informs social services. A visit from a child protection officer follows, and thanks to a series of tragicomic coincidences - inadvertently orchestrated by Billy - the family's nightmare begins. Billy's incomplete understanding of the world, the universe and everything in it only serves to underscore the bigger picture. In Wakling's hands, life at boy-level becomes a vivid and contradictory place to live.
Enriching Billy's malapropic musings - "God is a segment of the imagination"; "Dad makes porridge with golden stirrups" - is his encyclopaedic knowledge of the animal kingdom. With the help of old David Attenborough DVDs, he attempts to classify his own family's behavioural ticks. His mother becomes a prairie dog – "she's never tiring!" – while his cousin, Lizzie, is an owl: "she does have huge eyes and she doesn't say anything much except oooh."
Life in a small head can start to feel claustrophobic for even the most patient reader, but Wakling ratchets up the narrative tension by challenging us to identify the real monster of the piece. Is it Billy's father - whose angry reprimand "Son!" slices through the text – or Billy himself, who knows enough to understand that his dad is "quite pleased" when he has a "proper reason" to be cross with him. This is an authro who captures parent-child relations in the raw, and a primeval love that even the most well-meaning social worker can't tame.
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